Renato Cisneros: The Distance Between Us

“If I were moved by any kind of power at all, it would be the power of revealing absolutely everything about who we are.”

It’s been so long ago that I have started to question whether Florentina Ariza ever truly loved Fermina Daza. And why is it that what remains most vivid in my mind is how Dr. Urbino’s tasseled slippers made Fermina weep after his death? 

“The thing you remember most is what has most deeply affected you,” writes Renato Cisneros. Have I always been affected by loss, or afraid of the space of another’s absence?

I apologize. I have fully digressed right from the beginning! Is it even possible to digress right from the beginning?

But what makes the writing and the translation of The Distance Between Us so satisfying is that it is reminiscent of my first encounters with the Latin American greats! (Not the magic realism aspect for there is none of that here, but in the way the writer involves the reader intimately by making the characters palpable, using subtle tricks of psychoanalysis to dig as far within as they can so that one can gaze even into the unconscious.) But perhaps, most of all, for the moving premise of a son writing a book in an attempt to reduce the distance between him and his deceased father, a controversial figure in Peru’s turbulent history: A poignant endeavor to understand who the father really was in order for the son to fully understand himself. To acknowledge the faults of the father so as not to perpetuate them. To break the cycle and confront, rather than escape as his father and forebears have done, “Ignoring and later burying the thornier details of their pasts, they turned their backs on the intrigues of their shared history, embarking on a course of permanent disorientation…”

And yet, “Just as a father is never prepared to bury his son, a son is never prepared to dig up his father.” His undertaking brought to light his father’s amorous affairs; classified information that led him to acknowledge, though he loved him, that his father was a villain, but also that villains are made of wounds; the discovery that his parents were never legally married; and then to write about their love, to legitimize it — “This novel is my parents’ lost marriage certificate.”

Forget my likening Charco Press books to espresso shots. This strong blend of the personal and the political compelled me to spend hours and days between its pages. “Authenticity” is such an abused term nowadays that I sometimes wonder if the overuse has marked the word with a tinge of insincerity. Then comes along a book like this that keeps such doubts at bay. A work devoid of the inauthenticities of biographies and brimming with the honesty that confronts us in fiction.

Was I wrong to wish that the son of a dictator who is now our current president could be more like this son? But I digress, again.

Ryszard Kapuscinski: Shah of Shahs

“As a journalist, I say: Long live the magic. Kapuściński is an advocate for all who have chafed in a straitjacket called the house style, seen their lyrical phrases slashed for space, cursed the whole pedantic army of editors and fact checkers… he is a journalist’s writer, an example of what so many of us would love to be — if only we had the nerve.” — Christopher de Bellaigue

When one has had their fill of different accounts of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, fiction and nonfiction, Iranian and foreign; when an ample idea of its unfolding and its chronology has finally taken root; when details and events have been repeated enough and begin to sound redundant unless they are written with an exceptional voice and perspective; it is time to read Shah of Shahs by Ryszard Kapuściński — my personal cherry on the top of an Iranian Revolution literary stack.

It is not the book to read if one prefers a sequential list of events, a full cast of characters, an emotionally-charged dramatization, or a detailed portrayal of the Shah. This is not a portrait of the last Shah of Iran, neither is it a consummate portrait of a nation. From the collected clutter on Kapuściński’s hotel room desk in Tehran emerges a portrait of the nature of dictatorships and revolutions.

I can only wish he elaborated on that extravagant celebration that the Iranian despot held in Persepolis in 1971, which contributed to the flames of revolution, and in which the first guest to arrive at the event was Imelda Marcos. I would have loved for Kapuściński to have written a book about the Marcos family and our own EDSA Revolution!

For a Filipina reader and albeit dormant journalist, the writing method is illuminating and the subject hits close to home. There are too many passages that feel as if he were describing my own nation’s recent history. But then again, “The rather small arsenal of political tricks has not changed in millennia,” observed Kapuściński, who reported on twenty-seven revolutions during his illustrious career as a journalist.

Within a corrupt government, “Whoever tried to be honest looked like a paid stoolie.” “The higher up, the fuller the pockets,” and in that world, “development” has an entirely different meaning. “Any dictatorship appeals to the lowest instincts of the governed,” “A despot believes that man is an abject creature. Abject people fill his court and populate his environment.”

That a fed and entertained populace does not always signify a free society is a truth that burns: “A terrorized society will behave like an unthinking, submissive mob for a long time. Feeding it is enough to make it obey. Provided with amusements, it’s happy.”

And this is what he says about truth: “It takes a long time for a truth to mature, and in the meantime people suffer or blunder around in ignorance.” I’d like to believe, however, that reading the writings of Kapuściński speeds the process.

At the back of my mind, this question: Is Iran in the cusp of another revolution?

Ryszard Kapuscinski: The Other

There is the romantic in me who would like to write an ode of admiration to this exceptional journalist for tackling a most pertinent matter and there is also the dormant journalist tempted to fangirl. However, the teacher of little children prevailed and simplified the lessons instead.

Who is my “Other”?

Those who do not hold the same beliefs. The most obvious right now are those who do not share the same political views.

How should we relate to Others?

There seems to be three approaches: War, isolation, and a third one learned through trade routes like the Silk Road — cooperation.

Why not war?

“It is hard to justify wars; I think everyone loses them, because it is a defeat for the human being. It exposes his inability to come to terms, to empathize with the Other, to be kind and reasonable…”

Why not isolation?

“The idea that prompted man to build great walls and vast moats, to surround himself with them and isolate himself from others, has in modern times been given the name of the doctrine of apartheid.”

What is the main content of the encounter with the Other?

Dialogue. Dialogical openness, perspective, and awareness. “The will to become acquainted.”

What should I equip myself with?

“…it is so important to have one’s own distinct identity, a sense of its strength, value and maturity. Only then can a man boldly confront another culture. Otherwise he will lurk in his hiding place, fearfully isolating himself from others.”

Why should we cooperate and why should we relate to the Other?

Because building bridges of understanding with Others “is not just an ethical duty but also an urgent task for our time in a world where everything is so fragile and where there is so much demagogy, disorientation, fanaticism and bad will.”

“The Self not only has to relate to the Other, but must assume responsibility for him and be prepared to bear the consequences for such a decision, such an attitude. Is there a Christian act of sacrifice in this? Yes — of sacrifice, renunciation and humility.”